I know, I know. The Clash’s third and most revered album, London Calling was released on December 14, 1979 – in the UK. The album was, however, released in the US on January 10, 1980, so technically it’s an 80s album. I really wanted to sneak this one in, so I chose the title track as a Favorite 80s Song. To support my decision, I’ll cite Rolling Stone magazine’s 1989 “Best Album of the 1980s” list that puts the album as #1. When Joe Strummer got the call about this accolade, he was confused because the album came out in 1979. The release dates have meant that the album has appeared on numerous 70s and 80s lists, and it appears near the top of many lists of greatest albums of all time.
Choosing a favorite track from London Calling is tough. Although there are a couple of tracks that I don’t absolutely love, the album works as a whole so that you can’t imagine the track listing and sequencing being any other way. For many reasons, the song “London Calling” stands out – it opens the album, discordant, emphatic, and with lyrics that put the listener at attention. Strummer invokes the famous BBC phrase “London calling” to warn about a post-apocalyptic vision of London, referencing police brutality, climate change, the 1970s oil shortage, drug use (ahem), nuclear accidents, and he implores those of the underworld and those who are apathetic, conformist zombies to take action. In short, Strummer mentions concerns about problems in 1970s London and in the world at large. (The “nuclear error” reference is likely about the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown accident in Pennsylvania in March, 1979). The song sounds like no other – it starts with a marching beat, with funky bassline coming in, and then Topper Headon blasts in with a rolling drum sequence that starts off the vocals, with dirge-like chords throughout.
Last Fall I was reading Marcus Gray’s book, Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, which more than thoroughly traces every note, lyric, and reference in the album, while I was preparing to teach some poems by Romantic poet William Blake in my world literature course. One of Blake’s poems from his 1794 volume Songs of Experience is “London,” a short poem that calls to task the effects of the Industrial Revolution, thirty or so years after its onset. In sixteen lines, Blake criticizes (burgeoning) capitalism, the church, the military, the monarchy, prostitution, and marriage. The Romantics valued nature as the source of psychological renewal and spirituality and as representative of spontaneity, while celebrating the individual and creative expression. They developed these themes in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, as workers who were exploited (including child workers) crowded into cities for factory jobs, and rapid urbanization resulted in terrible living conditions.
William Blake and Joe Strummer, separated by 200 years, voiced similar concerns about social ills of London, stemming, really, from the onset of capitalism ushered in by the Industrial Revolution. I had my students listen to the song and read the lyrics, and we talked about the commonalities in their historical contexts. The bottom line for the lesson is that both the poem and the song serve as warnings for change. Will that change happen? Stay tuned, I guess.
- I bought an original UK pressing of London Calling, so technically my copy is from the 1970s. If you ever get a chance, listen to the vinyl version, and you’ll see how the groupings of songs on the four sides of the album work together. This effect has been lost in the CD and digital streaming eras, and hearing albums this way changes how you perceive an album.
- Joe Strummer has been described as a Romantic idealist, despite being a punk (i.e., stereotypically cynical or nihilistic) musician.
- The Marcus Gray book is great if you’re really, really into this album. Most interesting to me were the histories of Stagger Lee and the Rudie/Rude Boy figure.
- Yes, I subjected my students to one of my personal favorites, but hopefully it was a way to show them that Blake’s anxieties are similar to more current ones (although 1979/1980 is way before they were born, but… anyway). I see connections all the time between songs and the literature I teach, and in this case, I couldn’t help myself.
- U2 titled their 2014 album Songs of Innocence, and the album tour was called the Innocence + Experience Tour. This album was the one that Apple and U2 infamously automatically added to all users’ iTunes collections. There’s all sorts of capitalism-related irony there.